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  Rounds Resounding: 
Circular Music for Voices and Instruments; An Eight-Century Reference
ani solo note        Excerpt from chapter "History and Development of Rounds"

             "Sumer Is Icumen In" is the first historically-documented "round,"  "part-song," or "circular-music."  According to calculations of the British Museum (Harleian MS. No. 978 - referred to as "The Reading Rota" - unearthed in the nineteenth century), it was scribed onto parchment sometime between 1226 and 1240 by John of Fornsete, a monk at Reading Abbey, England.  Most historians agree that he did not write the piece, but merely recorded it.  Students of English literature are familiar with the work as a Middle English verse that is standard in most collections of English poetry and prose.  Curiously, although John of Fornsete wrote out both the words and music, it is seldom identified as a round, or even by the older nomenclature of canon, outside of music books.

             Historically, rounds, like other musical compositions, were not written down in the earlier years of civilization.  Composers and troubadours depended on their memories and the folk-tradition of passing music from one person or generation to another.  Much of the music preserved was sacred, used in churches as hymns and chants.  It was not until near the close of the ninth century that an anonymous monk of Flanders wrote down the principles of harmony.  Still another century went by before the staff and a system of notation, essentially as they exist today, were evolved from the efforts of musical scholars of Egypt, Greece, and the Orient.  By the twelfth century, letters to indicate clef were used in manuscripts of Guido of Arezzo (c990-1050), an Italian Monk at the Benedictine Abbey of Pomposa - and the measured notation of musical time was further developed by Phillippe de Vitry (1291-1361.)  The flat appeared as early as the tenth century, but the invention of the sharp is attributed to Josquin Des Pre`s (1450-1521.) 

             By the thirteenth century, therefore, John of Fornsete had a standard system of notation to call upon.  The notes were squared-off, rather than the oval notes we are familiar with today, but readable by today's musicians, nevertheless.  The notes appeared on a red staff of six lines, with black diamonds from the middle of which the stems rose.  Why John of Fornsete chose "Sumer Is Icumen In" for his exercise in documenting a round is not known.  It is an interesting choice in that it was secular rather than sacred music.  Of course, literature from and about the period gives every reason to believe that monks were not disinclined to frivolity.  Canonic chants were common in church music, but "rounds" were the songs of ordinary folk.. . . . 

             Nomenclature, however, develops over centuries, and rounds, catches, canons, fugues, and glees were and are frequently confused with each other. This is partly due to their undifferentiated beginnings, and partly to a lack of widespread general information as to their differences.  Although they have certain similarities of notation and imitation (repeated music) or melodic counterpoint, there are definite dissimilarities noted by current standards. 

            Glees are songs for several voices (or choruses) which have the harmony of "pitch" such as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, but which are neither intended nor suitable for the overlapping of the melody upon itself. 

            Fugues repeat a central theme (called the "subject") in imitations which are several degrees lower or higher on the scale, with subsequent "subjects" and "answers" in additional counterpoints, and passages during which the subject is not stated, which are called "episodes."  Fugues are more commonly used in orchestral compositions than vocal ones.

            Canons are the musical forms most frequently misnamed as rounds. The primary difference is in the "distance" at which the subsequent voices enter.  Canons, with few exceptions, have only two "parts," the second of which enters to begin the identical melody as the first part, usually after the first has reached the end of the first or second measure.  The two parts, once joined, continue in unison, finishing at the same time.  The parts, therefore, are of unequal lengths.  The device of the same melody rendered at different times, is referred to as imitation.  Some canons have additional ornamentations such as inversion (the second and/or third voices mirror the notes by going in the opposite direction either up or down the scale), retrograde (the melody is  imitated backwards), or augmentation (the melody is imitated in proportionately slower notes.). . . . 

 - Gloria T. Delamar  © 1987
Two Rounds
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